Abolitionists organizing the battle against slavery during the 1830s quickly mastered the potentials of the penny press and the post office in their campaign to compel Americans to examine their consciences about the South’s “peculiar institution.” The movement published millions of broadsides and introduced fiery newspapers advancing the cause. Its emotional exhortations convinced thousands of ordinary Americans to voice their anger at human bondage by sending nearly a million petitions through the mails, beseeching Congress to abolish slavery. Federal legislators had already passed a gag rule prohibiting such discussion. Former President John Quincy Adams, now a congressman, often raised the petitions on the floor, forcing opponents into embarrassing stipulations to table the letters. Undeterred anti-slavery citizens continued the cascade of pleas against any enlargement of the servile system. The movement survived violence, too, when anti-abolitionist rioters burned presses and killed one editor in Illinois in 1837. White editors William Lloyd Garrison and David Lee Child are widely known for their brave commitment to abolitionist publishing. Other than Frederick Douglass, far less is known about the courageous black journalists who strived to extinguish slavery.
David Ruggles, an African-American printer in New York City during the 1830s, was the prototype for black activist journalists of his time. During his 20-year career, Ruggles poured out hundreds of articles, published at least five pamphlets and operated the first African-American press. His magazine, Mirror of Liberty, intermittently issued between 1838 and 1841, is widely recognized as the first periodical published by a black American. Ruggles also displayed unyielding courage against constant violence, which eventually destroyed his health and career. His story reveals the valor required of a black editor struggling against the pitiless hatred of the pro-slavery forces and the yawning indifference of most Americans. Ruggles’ valiant work ran the spectrum of the work of journalists. He was an agent, writer, printer, publisher and subject. He was in fact America’s first black working journalist. His career epitomized the fusion of professionalism and activism, so characteristic of later black journalists, that would propel him to the center of racial conflict.
Ruggles was born in norwich, Connecticut, in 1810, the eldest of seven children of free black parents. His father, David Sr., was a blacksmith. His mother, Nancy, was a noted caterer and a founding member of the local Methodist church. Ruggles was educated at religious charity schools in Norwich. By the age of 17, he was in New York, first working as a mariner; in 1828 he opened a grocery shop. At first he sold liquor. Observing, as did other black abolitionists, the damage done to the black community by drink, he converted to the temperance movement. He advocated it in his advertisements in Freedom’s Journal, the nation’s first black newspaper, which was published by Samuel Eli Cornish, a black Presbyterian minister.
By the early 1830s, Ruggles became involved in the growing anti-slavery movement in New York. White radicals, disenchanted by reform measures, now joined blacks demanding the immediate end of slavery. His grocery shop at 1 Cortlandt Street was the nation’s first black bookstore until a mob destroyed it. In 1833, the Emancipator, an abolitionist weekly, appointed him as its agent to canvass for subscribers throughout the Middle Atlantic states. By 1834, Ruggles was also writing regularly. That year, he published his own pamphlet entitled The “Extinguisher” Extinguished: or David M. Reese, M.D. “Used Up…” a satirical screed attacking the leading local proponent of the American Colonization Society. This organization, which roused fiery anger in Ruggles and other blacks, argued that the only solution for America’s racial problems was to ship all free blacks to Africa. However implausible this sounds today, the plan was very popular among whites in the antebellum United States. Yet blacks understood, Ruggles thundered, that the plan did not threaten the future of slavery. His self-published booklet was the first imprint by an African American.